This starts off rough but please bear with it. It gets better, promise.
The inverse of how I describe chemotherapy.
Whenever I come across a task that is challenging I say “Suz, you did chemo. You can do this”. To which my subconscious replies “Yeah Suz, but you are terrible at math. This does not apply. But thanks for the pep talk”.
If you read this, about to commence what will be a challenging time (to put it lightly) in your life I mean this not to scare you, or to put you off. I write this both for those going through it to show a loved one if they can’t understand what it feels like, or to read and feel some relief that someone described the effects of chemo of something other than “fatigue” or “nausea”. Paltry. It does suck. There’s no getting around that. Sorry, what a bitch.
Chemo was cumulatively crap and somewhat of a blur. Every cycle, every day came without fail, and without fail it felt more punishing than the day before. Somehow this was a blessing. The first few days, where nothing happened to me, it took away the horrifying expectations I had previously held.
The top of my head was screwed off and they poured out my remains. Then they head me with a bus. Walking hurts. Stairs are a joke. To double the impact, throughout chemotherapy, I never let go of the idea that I deserved it. I was cocky. I day-dreamed that one time in English about what it would be like to go through chemo. This is my punishment.
There is something hollow in that kind of suffering. I don’t mean this self-pitying, but because I’ve seen and heard about the same thing from other people having chemo and radiotherapy and surgeries and everything else. Both grandmothers. Friends. Looking up at my mum, who can’t stop it. The anti-emetics don’t work, they never will. It all has to come up. Everything, and then some.
Etoposide was my least favourite. Though apparently less dangerous than bleomycin and cisplatin, I could taste it at the back of my throat for the hours it was pumped in. Green Tea was the only thing that made it dissipate days after. Sean taught me that the gag reflex can be controlled by rubbing the little nubbin between your fore-finger and thumb. I don’t know if that’s true but I still do it today. No complaints about needles though. You have 3, 5, 10, 20….no big deal. Even the really big ones. (It’s really time I got a tattoo).
A nurse came in one day to ask if we could start Day 5 of a chemo cycle earlier, at 6am. I would only finish the fourth day at 11pm that night, but I agreed. They needed the room for another patient, fair enough.
It wasn’t two hours before I was doubled over the bed choking and wrenching up anything I could find. Tears streaming down my face. Tinnitus blaring. Nurses injecting me, trying to make the vomiting stop, while I concentrated on the numerous grey cardboard buckets passed under me. Even with a stomach ten times emptied, I spewed bile, and begin to sip Oasis just to have something to bring up again. Each time being throttled and squeezed from stomach to throat by an invisible hand. My face stretched and red. Chemo is a mother-fucking asshole bitch.
All you can do is console yourself that the harder it hurts, the better it must be working. Even if that isn’t true. This is because you can’t console yourself that it will end soon because you never know. Sometime, after hours of pain, it just stops.
I used to tell myself that I wasn’t pathetic or weak. People told me that I was brave and strong, so it had to be true, but I felt myself slipping down. My eyes were yellow and my bald head itched against the pillows. Every time I entered the hospital I would unconsciously vomit and faint from the fear. This is why you tend not to have chemo at home. My fingers were numb and everything hurt. Doctors kept saying ‘cure’ but I didn’t believe them. They’d said I wouldn’t have to have chemo not that long ago and that Edna hadn’t spread. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.
I realised quickly that I had a bad case of ‘Chemo Brain’. I had planned on reading every book possible and doing all of my GCSEs. But I couldn’t finish a paragraph of Harry Potter, and the thought of someone reading to me was too depressing.
One day in the chemo lounge, I was sat next to a woman in her thirties having treatment with her mother next to her. The mother was feeding her daughter whilst she groaned. I was two cycles in and looked at her, hoping for comradery or maybe a sign that this was going to get better. Like in the movies. Sadly, the woman had clearly had enough, which is so fair and understandable. The life had literally been sucked out of her, and there wasn’t much left to give to someone new.
Fair enough, I had already started taking out my bad sad moods out on my sister and was struggling to find the energy to keep up with any unnecessary conversations. I wasn’t mad at her, I just had nothing left to put out. And her being wonderful and alive reminded me that I was not. That much I was not in control of but I decided then that no matter how scared or sad I felt that I would not let myself sink into the hole of depression. This was going to go on for so much longer and if I could see that there was no consolation or silver lining, besides my loved ones, to keep me going.
You have to create silver linings. It was up to me not to sink down. If I sank into depression, if I spiralled down, there was nothing to pull me out. I pictured the sinkhole in beginning of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
Another day, weeks later. I lay on my side staring at my cannula in my hand when a nurse came in and asked if I would speak to another patient who was about to have the same surgery I had to remove his tumour. Similar cancer. I expected a kid that I could hug or ‘pity-pat’. Limping into the room on the ward, holding my chemo-pumpy-machine, I couldn’t believe I was seeing a man in his forties. Married. With kids, I don’t know. He was looking at me, all of fifteen, for reassurance. His eyes looked like mine a couple months ago, asking me to tell him that it’s going to be okay. Cancer can even out age-difference that way. To promise him that. I was honest with him, that it is pretty rough but joked about the morphine afterwards. I couldn’t make it better but, that wasn’t my job. I could show that I understood.
Even when chemotherapy sucks the life out of you. There are periods, sometimes hours, sometimes half an hour, where you get some energy back, and you don’t feel so sick. You have some life to spare, or spend on people. Valentine’s Day rolled around and I found myself deep into another round of chemo. My friends are beautiful confident girls, who had many a dude chasing after them. I fully expected to watch ‘The Holiday’, cry-laugh, and eat a trough of plain bagels (the only thing that no longer made me nauseous). But they all came up and sat with me all day. They brought Valentine’s cards (more than I had ever received with hair). We talked like normal people about normal, seemingly mundane, problems. Mostly boys and shitty haircuts. I thought ‘this is all I want after that fucking poison, this is perfect’.
To bastardize a Churchill quote: “When you’re going through hell, talk about your friend’s terrible haircut/boyfriend/test score/allergy”. Or something to that.
Sometimes I would think to the hours previous, gutted and prodded over a cardboard bucket, and think how wonderful it is to have a conversation about some dude’s text with the mixed signals. Chemo is different for a lot of people, mine was non-stop, short, and nasty. Some have years of chemo. Some people don’t have symptoms like the above. Some do, and worse. I write this because it can bring you down no matter what cocktail you’ve got, and you can’t make the chemo better. You can work around it, food and drink and yoga. But you can’t stop it. No one will blame you for that. But you can chose how you deal with it. What you present to the world. I’m glad only one person saw the worst of it. I don’t think I could ever look Julia in the eye if she saw me bent over and helpless like that.
It’s torture enough for one. But it does end. And in the mean-time it’s up to you to fight for a silver lining (Copyright Bradley Cooper).